Vienna Mythbusters

Vienna Mythbusters

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Like any other city, Vienna abounds with urban myths. Separate truth from fiction with these Vienna mythbusters.

Vienna Urban Myth #1: The great composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was buried in a pauper's grave.

Vienna Mythbusters and scholars will be quick to tell you Mozart indeed had money troubles when he died in 1791 at only 35. But his style of burial wasn't determined by his lack of wealth – which seems to have been due only to a short-term credit crunch rather than real poverty.

We can blame this erroneous Vienna urban legend on Emperor Joseph II. After all, it's his fault we don't know exactly where the great Maestro was buried. Inspired by the New Enlightenment, Joseph wanted to be rid of traditions he associated with the backwardness of the Catholic Church, so he targeted funeral rites.

One of the Emperor's rules was that members of Vienna's society (except those with a high social status) were buried in reusable coffins. The end of these caskets had swinging doors and the body was tipped through them into graves. The graves weren't mass graves, as is often written. Mozart had his own grave, but every 10 years, the Emperor decreed, all the graves would be plowed over so that the land could be reused for new graves.

I visited St. Marx's Cemetery, a chilling spot even for the bravest Vienna mythbusters, when I was researching my novel Mozart's Last Aria, and it's about a mile southeast of the center of town along the Rennweg. A small monument to Mozart stands in an area of undulating grass. It's actually a disturbing site because the grass covers the mixed-up bones of thousands of Viennese, whose graves were plowed over again and again until after Joseph's death, when regular burials resumed.

Friedhof St. Marx
3, Leberstrasse 6 - 8
Wien, Austria
+43 1 40004-2042
Hours: 7AM-dusk (Nov-Mar), 7AM-5PM (Apr-Oct), 7AM-6PM (May-Sep), 7AM-7PM (Jun-Aug)

Vienna Urban Myth #2: The German national anthem was written by an Austrian in Vienna.

Most of us know the opening refrain of "Deutschland über alles." The "Song of Germany," as it's known to Germans, was composed in 1797 by Joseph Haydn as a birthday song for the Emperor. "God Save Emperor Francis," as the original lyrics proclaimed, continued to be the anthem of the Austrian Empire until its dissolution in 1918. At that point, though, the tune was up for grabs, and in 1922 Germany claimed it - with new words.

Vienna Urban Myth #3: The city walls were funded by the ransom of King Richard I (the Lionheart) of England.

On his way home from the Third Crusade in 1192, King Richard was shipwrecked and forced to make his way across Europe disguised as a monk. He was discovered when, despite his lowly disguise, he ordered a meal fit for a king at an inn and was imprisoned in the Kuenringer Castle in Dürnstein, a beautiful little village along the Danube in the Wachau region, a few miles west of the Vienna urban center.

As the legend goes, for Richard's release, Duke Leopold of Austria forced the English to pay about 12 tons of silver. In 1200, Leopold used the money to build such marvelous bastions that the Viennese kept them until the mid-19th century; long after most modern cities had demolished theirs.

Imprisoning a crusader was against the laws of the Church, so Leopold was excommunicated by Pope Celestine III. However, the walls saved Vienna for the Catholic faith later, during sieges by the Ottoman Turks in 1529 and 1683. The broad Ringstrasse occupies the land where the fortifications once stood, and you can see some of the remaining wall at Stubentor subway station.

Village of Dürnstein Tourist Information Office
Dürnstein No. 132, A-3601
Dürnstein, Austria
+43 (0) 2711/200
Hours: Seasonal; please visit website for updated hours

The Wachau
Between Krems & Melk
West of Vienna, Austria

City Centre
Vienna, Austria

Vienna Urban Myth #4: The Viennese say "bon appetit" when they mean "hello."

The Austrian word for "bon appetit" is "mahlzeit." It means "mealtime," literally, and if you're eating with someone you can say "mahlzeit" to them as you commence your meal.

In modern times it has become a neutral way of greeting someone during the middle hours of the day because the other options in Austrian German are "gruess Gott" (which means "greet God") and "freundschaft" (which means "friendship" and is used by socialist who don't want to mention God). So even if someone's not eating, you can say "hello" by wishing them a good appetite, or "mahlzeit!" While not exactly one of the more colorful urban myths linked to Vienna, it's definitely a social tidbit that can help you sound like a seasoned traveler.

By the way, saying "mahlzeit" when you start eating in Germany makes you sound a bit blue collar. Go with "guten appetit" instead.

Vienna Urban Myth #5: Cappuccino was invented in Vienna.

One of the more "stimulating" urban myths in Vienna is also one the Viennese enjoy using to tease their Italian friends by suggesting that not only is the coffee in Vienna better than in Italy (which is quite false, unless you like yours particularly bitter and a bit weak), but also that cappuccino is a Viennese creation, too.

The Viennese connection to coffee is an old one. After the Turkish siege was lifted in 1683, the Viennese found bags of coffee from Arabia left behind in the camp of the fleeing Ottomans. With this coffee, first coffeehouse opened in Vienna. The urban legend relays that a Capuchin friar named Marco d'Aviano sweetened the coffee with milk and honey and gave it the name cappuccino.

In fact, Vienna mythbusters like me are fond of pointing out that Friar Marco actually had invented what's now known in Vienna as a "mélange" coffee. Cappuccino didn't come along until after the invention of espresso in Italy early in the last century. It's named after the brown habits and white hoods of the Capuchins-brown for the coffee underneath and white for the milk on top.

Vienna Urban Myth #6: Back to Vienna's greatest resident with this gem: Mozart's funeral service was held entirely out of doors.

For decades, historians and guidebooks have debated exactly where Mozart's funeral service was held, making his final resting place one of Vienna's more contentious urban myths. Was it in the outdoor chapel-barely more than a covered alcove-on the north exterior wall of St. Stephen's Cathedral, where a plaque now marks the spot? Or was it in the Chapel of the Cross inside the Cathedral (turn left and left again when you enter)?

While researching my novel Mozart's Last Aria, I ran back and forth between the two putative burial spots-and from one book to another in the library-until I sharpened my Vienna mythbuster's skills and figured it out.

The pro-"outside" myths surround the alleged refusal of the priests to carry out the service inside the cathedral because Mozart wasn't religious enough for them-they certainly had refused to go to his apartment to administer last rites. Others cite the rainy weather on the December day he was buried, arguing that nobody would've held a service outside under such conditions and, according to this theory, the attendees at the funeral decided not to follow the coffin to the graveyard because of the rain.

In fact, the rain didn't deter anyone in Vienna in those days from venturing out. The outside chapel was actually used because it includes a trapdoor directly into the crypt for the coffin to be raised through before the service. The mourners didn't follow the coffin to the grave because the graveyard was more than a mile away along a muddy country road. Anyway, mourners were barred from the graveside by edict of the Emperor-more of Joseph II's modernizing measures.

Domkirche St. Stephan
Stephansplatz 3
1010 Wien
+43 1 51552-3526
Hours: Open 6AM-10PM Mon-Sat, 7AM-10PM Sun; tours are between 9:30AM and 11:30AM and 1PM and 4:30PM Mon-Sat and 1PM and 4:30PM Sun. Tours are EUR 14,50 for an adult with one child and EUR 12,00 for students and seniors.

Matt Beynon Rees is the author of an award-winning series of crime novels about Palestinian detective Omar Yussef. His novel about the mystery of Mozart's death, Mozart's Last Aria, will be published in 2011. Read his blog on Red Room.
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